Taking a Break From The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing

Taking a Break
From The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing

This article is reprinted by permission from the August 6, 2010 edition of “The Pastors’ Weekly Briefing.” PWB is a weekly e-mail newsletter from Focus on the Family. To learn more about Focus on the Family’s outreach to pastors or to sign up to receive their helpful newsletter, please visit www.parsonage.org

taking_breakWhile we read in Genesis that God rested on the seventh day, a growing number of ministers are finding that there is more work — and stress — than ever before, and fewer opportunities to unwind. The result has been a myriad of health problems among the clergy — from a lack of exercise, poor eating habits, more hypertension, a rise in obesity, problems of depression and substance abuse, higher rates of arthritis and asthma, and all of the ills of modern life that pastors spend so much time trying to help their congregants tackle. And many of these are at higher rates than most Americans.

A national survey in 2001 of more than 2,500 Christian religious leaders conducted by Duke Divinity School showed that 76 percent of Christian clergy were either overweight or obese, 15 percentage points higher than for the general U.S. population. And other research has shown that clergy across all faiths are succumbing to higher rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other ailments than their congregants.

What are some of the reasons for this decrease in health?

  • Some experts say the situation may be aggravated by the recession, with donations down and more financial challenges for pastors on the job.
  • The culture and economy are also causing many difficulties for the members of their congregations, which pastors feel they must try to address.
  • Clergy routinely work 60-hour weeks and often have just one day off — and not the day everyone else is off. That makes it hard to develop friendships and creates a lot of loneliness.
  • Nearly every function a pastor attends is likely to have food — and not necessarily healthy fare — that he or she is expected to share.
  • A clergy shortage in many faiths leaves pastors overworked, overstressed, underpaid, and too often a lone ranger with little support from other ministers or the congregation.
  • Like other service professions, pastors are expected to be available at all times, whether it is the dinner hour or on vacation. They have “boundary issues,” which means they are too easily overtaken by the urgency of other people’s needs.
  • Pastors are often designated the holiest member of the congregation, who can be in all places at all times. But unlike doctors or police, they are supposed to be people who have dedicated their lives to a spiritual goal and are not expected to focus on themselves, their own welfare or their families.
  • The root of the stress is that, for a minister, work centers around so many different relationships and the demand that he or she be all things to all people.
  • Pastors start thinking that things like their church will be their legacy instead of their families, which knocks them out of balance and “whacks” their own relationships with Christ.

As cell phones and social media expose ministers to new dimensions of stress, and as health care costs soar, some of the country’s largest denominations have begun wellness campaigns for their spiritual leaders. At the center of nearly all of these programs is more rest.

“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University.

A United Methodist Church directive proclaimed, “Time away can bring renewal and help prevent burnout.” Episcopal, Baptist and Lutheran churches have all undertaken health initiatives that place special emphasis on the need for pastors to take vacations and observe “Sabbath days,” their weekday time off in place of Sundays.

A program called the National Clergy Renewal Program, funded by the Lilly Foundation, has been underwriting sabbaticals for pastors for several years. The program will provide up to $50,000 to 150 congregations in the coming year. And places like the Alban Institute are studying the topic and offering expertise and resources to denominations trying to make their clergy healthier.

But experts say the solutions have to start at the congregation level. Congregants can encourage pastors to take time off, and not view everything in the church as his or her responsibility. They can provide healthy foods at church events. But clergy themselves must find time to exercise and to relax, even if it means saying no to some requests. Otherwise, they will not be healthy enough to serve their flocks later. They must recognize that long hours and porous boundaries between one’s work life and personal life is an occupational hazard.

Rev. Peter Scazzero, pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Elmhurst, Queens, N.Y., begins his advice by rejecting the constant-growth ethic that has contributed to the explosion of so-called mega-churches. He also advocates more vacation time for members of the clergy, Sabbath-keeping, and a “rhythm of stopping,” or daily praying, that he learned from the silent order of Trappist monks. He was forced to make a change to live more consciously and less compulsively by his depression and alienation from his wife and four children. “The insight I gained from the Trappists is that being too ‘busy’ is an impediment to one’s relationship with God.” [The New York Times, PoliticsDaily.com]